The Ultimate Maverick
Rare is the professional sports team owner who has a personality and a following that rivals his best player’s. Mark Cuban is rare.
Owner of the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks, Cuban has never been one to shy away from the media; he’s certainly never been afraid to wear his heart on his sleeve—even when his sleeves are short.
Mark Cuban’s outspoken and uncompromising ways have won him a host of fans and more than a few detractors. In fact, his large personality (considered unreservedly enthusiastic to some, bombastic to others) has helped to build his brand and polarize feelings about the Mavericks. Those who disliked them before were further alienated by the owner’s outspoken ways; conversely, those who were casual fans often became passionate followers of the team, rallying behind Cuban’s incessant banter.
From the Mouth of Mark Cuban
"One of the best classes I ever took was entrepreneurship. There is much more to starting a business than just understanding finance, accounting and marketing. Teaching what has worked with startup companies and learning about experiences that others have had could really make a difference. I know it did for me."
Cuban’s leadership style doesn’t have a whole lot of respect for the status quo. As a result, he has been a tremendous asset to his franchise... and sometimes a liability. But one thing no one can deny is that Mark Cuban knows the ins and outs of what makes a fan’s experience unique and enjoyable, and he brings that creativity and insight to every aspect of his work. He always has. “I’ve always been a consumer of sporting events. I started going to baseball games when I was 5 years old,” he explains—and his use of the word consumer here is deliberate.
While the media has chalked up his enthusiastic participation in the day-to-day operations of the Mavericks to the fact that he is a “fan-owner,” Cuban explained that it’s more than that. “I think it’s not so much being a fan as it is being a customer…. I learned a lot over the years, and I continue to learn. I have always tried to create the best possible experience for our customers in all of our businesses, the Mavs included, and to do that you have to put yourself in the shoes of the customer and learn what makes the experience the most amazing, differentiated experience they could achieve for their entertainment dollar.”
But Cuban didn’t stop at putting himself in the customers’ shoes; he also put himself in the customers’ seats and bathrooms and lines. When he first purchased the Dallas Mavericks for $285 million from H. Ross Perot Jr. in 2000, Cuban set out to understand what the typical game-going experience was for the average fan so he could identify areas in need of improvement or increase the value of their dollar and make them want to return.
So rather than hanging out in the owner’s box, he tried to catch games in a variety of locations within the arena. He sat in the nosebleed seats to get a feel for what the view was like, if there were any obstructions, if the scoreboard was visible. He sat courtside to see if the seats were comfortable, the leg room sufficient, the noise level good. And he sat just about everywhere in between, counting how many times vendors passed by and how convenient the various amenities were. He also stood in line for concessions, timing each wait and evaluating the quality of the product when he received it. He used the public restrooms to make sure they were being kept clean and were sufficient to meet demand.
And then, he acted on what he found. New scoreboards were installed so that they did not block the view from the uppermost seats. More efficient practices were put into place for concession stands. Whatever information he collected during his “reconnaissance” in the stands, he put into action so as to make the new American Airlines Arena one of the most fan-friendly venues in all of professional sports.
Cuban went even further, though. In one of his most groundbreaking moves, he brought in a team of analysts to study the various NBA referees and their officiating patterns so the Mavericks players and coaches could tailor their playing style to the men who would be calling the game. It resulted in fewer fouls and better games. “It’s the desire to win and the willingness to demand the best of everyone involved in my business,” Cuban said, simply. “Our customers want the best. I have to figure out how to get it to them.”
It seems pretty clear that Cuban has done just that. Since he took over the team little more than a decade ago, the Mavs have improved their winning percentage from 40 to 69 percent in regular-season play, and have reached the playoffs every single year. They’ve also made two appearances in the finals: the franchise’s first ever in 2006 and again this year, when they came home champions.
Cuban is not afraid to be vocal about defending his team’s interests and players, either. In fact, he has been fined at least 17 times by the league because of statements he’s made or actions he’s taken in support of the Mavs that the NBA deemed inappropriate. The cost totaled a whopping $1.665 million—but even that was something Cuban was able to spin into a positive. To show that he stood by his fierce defense of his team, he announced he would be matching that amount in charitable contributions to various philanthropies.
Cuban is not above a little on-the-job-training, however. This year, when the Mavericks reached the playoffs, he demonstrated that he has learned a thing or two about when to keep his emotions in check. He toned down his fiery rhetoric and, aside from offering a couple of encouraging statements publicly, he kept any criticisms of the league, officials or other teams to himself. He allowed the focus to remain on the players rather than his own fierce fandom, and his team enjoyed the most successful season in franchise history.
Clearly, something in his leadership model is working; the question remains as to whether or not the rest of the league is willing to take heed. It was one thing to dismiss him as an overenthusiastic anomaly at first, but it is much harder to argue with the kind of record the Mavs have enjoyed over the past decade. And it may not be quite so simple to replicate Cuban’s success without the innate personality to carry off such an outsized interest in, and aggressive pursuit of, the team’s goals.
Going for it with all he’s got has been Cuban’s MO from childhood. “My dad always encouraged me to do things on my own and take control of my own destiny,” he says. “I remember as a kid, repackaging baseball cards and holding ‘sales’ for my friends when I was 11 or 12. I sold garbage bags door to door so I could afford basketball shoes. I was a hustler as a kid, and my dad encouraged me to always take initiative. Some of us are predisposed to be entrepreneurs. Maybe it’s genetic. I don’t know. But I don’t think we [the born-to-it types] are the only successful entrepreneurs. I think there are plenty of people who are ‘logical’ entrepreneurs. They see an opportunity and prepare themselves to complete their dreams or goals. And I think some of us are combinations of both types. For example, I never really saw myself as a risk-taker,” he says, although he lists the film Risky Business as one of his all-time favorites. “I was so obsessed with being great at whatever business I started that I worked my ass off to know the business and industry as well as anyone, which in my mind took the risk out of the business I was starting.”
As anyone who ever built a company from the ground up can empathize, those earliest years of intense struggle and sacrifice can lay the foundation for all subsequent greatness. In the early 1980s, Cuban worked with one of the Dallas-area’s first computer software distributors. But quickly recognizing the future of the field, he developed his own company, MicroSolutions, which rapidly grew to a multimillion-dollar corporation. “I think some of the most fun I had was when I owned MicroSolutions and I would pull all-nighters writing software trying to solve customer problems that in turn allowed the customer to excel in their business,” he says.
But he also is quick to acknowledge that such a complete and total dedication to developing his brand would not have been possible to such a degree had he been at a different point in his life: “I think the difference today is that I have a family. [Having] three kids changes everything. They are my proudest achievement. I’m not sure I could have made the same level of commitment had I had a family when I was younger…. In my humble opinion, it’s an impossible challenge to be completely focused on your business and your family equally. Something has to give.”
When he sold the business to CompuServe in 1990, he continued studying the field of computer technology to anticipate the direction of its growth. In 1995, he partnered with college friend Todd Wagner on a Web-radio company that broadcast college and professional basketball games, as well as political events such as debates. Riding the crest of the dot-com wave, the business enjoyed exponential growth by offering a unique product that had previously been far more difficult for many consumers to access. The company, Broadcast.com, was purchased by Yahoo! for $5.7 billion in 1999. (Read Mark Cuban's fond memories of Broadcast.com on his blog.)
He reinvested his wealth in a variety of businesses in order to help protect it from market uncertainty, but he has shown an obvious penchant for the realm of entertainment. In 2001, Cuban launched HDNet, an early hi-def programming network that is now one of the leaders in the field. In 2003, Cuban purchased the Landmark Theatre chain. He is also involved with 2929 Entertainment, a media company that produces and distributes films and television programs and holds syndication rights. He remains active in technology as well but now focuses mainly on software that targets networking and social applications. In 2006, he was a financial backer for the site ShareSleuth.com, which is aimed at exposing fraudulent business practices and mismanagement among publicly traded companies. And today he is a favorite panelist on the popular ABC series Shark Tank, in which business mavericks (the “sharks”) evaluate proposals from entrepreneurial hopefuls.
And then, of course, there is Cuban’s interest in sports. In 2005, he looked into becoming an NHL franchise owner, joining a group of investors who were considering purchasing the Pittsburgh Penguins. The deal did not go through. Soon afterward, he was rumored to be in ownership talks with another Pittsburgh team, the Pirates; however, it was when the Chicago Cubs went on sale in 2007 that Cuban’s name really began to be bandied about in MLB circles. He submitted a bid in 2008 for the sale, which included the team, Wrigley Field and a television deal, but Cuban was not successful. The following year, he tried—and failed—to purchase the Texas Rangers. This past summer, he admitted eyeing the Los Angeles Dodgers when there was speculation that team might be on the market, too, but no such move has been made public. So Cuban—and baseball fans itching for a new kind of team owner to shake up the league—must wait. One can’t help but wonder if that new-trophy smell from the 2011 NBA Championship will help to grease the skids for his entree into other leagues the next time he makes a bid.
Still, despite several disappointments he’s faced so far, he seems undeterred. For Cuban, the adrenaline of the bidding war seems to be part of the fun. “I have always been ultra-competitive. I don’t know anyone as competitive as I am,” he says. “I happened to gravitate to an arena—the business world—where I could compete most successfully.”
It’s the hardscrabble, fighting spirit that helps drive him through the ups and downs of investing in new companies. It’s also the thing that helped direct him toward sports team ownership in the first place. Like any successful entrepreneur, he followed his passion into the business, pursuing the opportunities that he knew the most about and that brought him the most excitement. “I’m not the type to take up a sport unless I think I can win at it. So you won’t see me pick up a pingpong paddle just to compete for the sake of competing,” he says. “I stick to sports that I think I can do well at…. You will see me take on a new business idea or investment if I think I can kick ass at it because it’s a world where I can excel.”
And then Cuban brings the talk back to—yup, you’ve got it—the consumer. “If you aren’t a customer of your own business, you are fooling yourself if you think you fully understand that customer’s needs. And CEOs have to make sure that their customers know that they are fully responsible for the customer experience. I always want our customers to know that they can come straight to me and I will take personal responsibility for our products or service and the customer experience.” And “it’s never [simply] about listening to your customers,” Cuban says. “It’s always about figuring out what they will need but don’t realize yet.”
In the case of the Dallas Mavericks, Cuban’s customer-first philosophy jibed perfectly with his other passion. “I guess part two of why people consider me a big fan is that I love to win,” Cuban says. “As I said, I’m incredibly competitive. I want to win at everything I do, and in the case of the Mavs, it means winning a championship, which, fortunately, we were able to do this year!”